Since 9/11, U.S. wars have become widespread, everyday affairs that most Americans know next to nothing about. The largest wars like Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have a limited place in public consciousness, but the dozens of secret operations taking place across the planet are alien to most of us. How does the war machine work today, and how do government, the media, and new technologies help to obscure war from the public? Norman Solomon tackles these questions on The Marc Steiner Show in a discussion around his new book, War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine.
Studio / Post-Production: David Hebden
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. It’s great to have you all with us.
I want to share a quote with you that really popped into my head after finishing reading War Made Invisible, by Norman Solomon, How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine. And as I introduce Norman to us all once again, think about this: America has been at war for 93% of our time of existence on this planet, 231 years out of 247 years, as a nation, since 1776. That means that only 20 years since the birth of this nation have we been at peace. Why is that? Who are we? Why do these wars keep taking place, now wars are even more dangerous than they ever were because we don’t see them, feel them, or hear them, which is what Norman Solomon writes about in huge detail and graphically for us to understand where we sit.
The book again, War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine. Norman, welcome back. Good to have you with us.
Norman Solomon: Thanks, Marc.
Marc Steiner: So you’ve written about war many times before but there’s something that really struck me as I read this book and finished it again which is how insidious the war machine has become, even since my time during the Vietnam War or my father’s time in World War II. There’s an insidiousness in the way it is hidden from us and how much more powerful and horrendous it’s become.
Norman Solomon: Insidious is a good word. It has worked its way into, you might say, the wallpaper of the media echo chambers. It’s ironic that media technology now has the capacity to convey to us, at least within the limits of any technology, the ways in which wars harm human beings and cause such desolation and such suffering. So with better technology than ever, we get less and less. And that’s driven by who dominates and controls the technology and the fact that as these wars have gone on in this century, they’ve become more and more abstract. There are fewer and fewer so-called boots on the ground. We’re above it all, literally and figuratively, bombing from the air, sending drones from many thousands of miles away. So the end result is that these abstractions become more and more acute, even as the military-industrial media complex makes killing more and more so-called normal.
Marc Steiner: I was going to wait till later to say this but I wanted to throw it out here early because I thought you very profoundly addressed it in your books, especially towards the end of the book, which is how we see it in some places and we don’t see it in other places. We might see it in Europe, we might see it in Ukraine, but we don’t see it, whether it was our wars in Afghanistan or Iraq or what we’ve done all throughout and continue to do all throughout the continent of Africa, and how race and racism is tied into all this and winds its way through in the wars that grip all the people who are involved.
Norman Solomon: I think of it as a series of Venn diagrams: The overlays where there are these factors that determine largely whether, as people in the US through U.S. media, we see, hear, and read about wars in terms of empathetic graphic detail or not. One is race. As you mentioned and has really occurred to me in the course of writing this book, racism has had so much of an effect on U.S. foreign policy and military intervention and yet we hear virtually nothing about that in mass media, certainly not from politics in Washington. Whereas when you think about it, the last few years, because of the wonderful movements that have consolidated behind Black Lives Matter and so forth, structural racism, systemic racism, is being talked about, not enough, but a lot more. And yet, that discourse exists only about domestic policy.
Something that stunned me as I was working on this book was the realization that in the more than 20 years of the so-called War on Terror, the victims of U.S. firepower around the world have been virtually all people of color. It’s hidden in plain sight. And when I realized that and wrote a whole chapter in the book about it, when the book came out, I sent a little op-ed to a number of daily newspapers and they all rejected it and what struck me is I’ve never read a piece to that effect. It’s not like I was saying stuff that had been repeated before. So, this is almost a taboo subject.
And then when you overlay that with the nationalism, the jingoism, and the ideology out of Washington, when the designated enemies of the US kill people in war, such as Russians slaughtering people in Ukraine, that is empathetically reported. But when the U.S. has slaughtered people in Afghanistan or Iraq, another big power invading another country illegally, very little empathy.
Marc Steiner: I’m going to have to read this one thing, one of the quotes. You have many powerful quotes in this, we’ll get to a few of them in the course of our conversation. But you have this one from Kelebogile Zvobgo and Meredith Loken and I want to read it to give the perspective on what you’re saying. The quote is, “Race is not a perspective on international relations; it’s a central organizing feature of world politics… And today race shapes threat perception and responses to violent extremism, inside and outside the ‘war on terror.’ Yet one cannot comprehend world politics while ignoring the race and racism. Race continues to shape our international and domestic threat perceptions.”
And that really is key. What’s happening in Ukraine is horrendous. What’s happening across many places but we don’t have the same empathetic structure as when it happens anywhere in the continent of Africa or in Asia or in Latin America. And much of the media backing what America does or ignoring those conflicts, unless they happen in Europe, exasperates the racism that grips this world.
Norman Solomon: When you overlay the factors of personal, institutional racism for U.S. foreign policy and warfare with the agendas of the geopolitical power of corporate-driven U.S. foreign policy and access to raw materials, geopolitical positioning, and all that, you get a great example of that, a very sad and horrible one.
When you think about if you drive around your neighborhood, certainly around mine, and this is the case in so much of the U.S., you will see Ukrainian flags displayed in solidarity with the people being bombed and strafed and murdered by the invading force, the Russian force. And I’m all for that.
Marc Steiner: Absolutely, right.
Norman Solomon: And I’m all for the empathetic U.S. media coverage of the people in Ukraine. The spin, the political lack of historical context, and so forth, that’s another matter. But in terms of the suffering on the ground in Ukraine, and that has caused this outpouring of emotion and support, including the display of Ukrainian flags, okay, that’s part of what being human should be, empathizing, what journalism should be.
I can’t find in my neighborhood, and I’m not aware of anywhere in the U.S., a display of Yemeni flags. People in Yemen have been slaughtered with U.S. government support since 2015, under three presidencies. You had under Obama, then Trump, then Biden. There’s a bit of a ceasefire now but for seven or eight years the killing of people with U.S. government active support, and shipping of billions of dollars worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia led to the killing in Yemen, the UN says almost 400,000 people have died in that war, the largest cholera epidemic in human history. How can it be that the U.S., as a country, as a people, and as media are so empathetic towards people invaded and killed in Ukraine but not in Yemen? And that is a clear instance of how corrupted and morally corrosive this environment is for us, personally and politically, and in terms of media coverage.
Marc Steiner: I’m curious. As I read your book, and especially after I finished it, I thought about all the things you posited… Let me give one of the stats here and talk about what you think is happening and why it has happened this way because war has always been part of humankind. I can’t think of a period of human history where it has not existed but we are reaching a point now where it could literally destroy the place we live, this entire planet.
And you write how we spent $50 billion a year over the last 20 years, that’s $2.1 trillion going to five firms: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman. The sheer size of the amount of money that we spend on war and preparing for war and it’s a war that’s not like the war that people saw that were troops on the ground; This is a war that’s unseen. And now you couple that with the world of artificial intelligence and how that is beginning to expand the notion of war without boots on the ground. So tell me what do you think that dynamic together means for us now and where do you think that takes us?
Norman Solomon: It means for us and it takes us further into a realm, a status quo, a so-called normality, where the more ubiquitous the power of the military-industrial complex is, the less it’s talked about and the less it’s objected to. I think of how then-senator Harry Truman during World War II gained a lot of acclaim for chairing hearings on Capitol Hill as a senator, investigating what was very derisively, critically called war profiteering. And I really can’t remember any uproar in recent years in the U.S. throughout the entire so-called war on terror, about war profiteering. As you mentioned, a few corporations making a killing, literally and figuratively, by increasingly selling aerospace products of one or another, but all tools of the trade of the killing industry. And yet, we get virtually no critical coverage.
Even on Capitol Hill among progressives, there is talk about, yes, the military budget is too high. But we are not hearing about that very essence, the core of the military-industrial complex, which is much more pervasive and much more powerful even since then-outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower coined the term in 1961.
Marc Steiner: The military-industrial complex, right?
Norman Solomon: Yes, the military-industrial complex.
Marc Steiner: There’s so much in this book. It’s jam-full of interesting analysis that you put into all of this. For me, there’s a real question here about the world we are entering, what you think the response can be, and how it can be developed. Because one of the things, the Vietnam War… And I started reading some more about the Vietnam War and media after reading your book. And while much of the media went along with the war and glorified the war, it also exposed the war at the same time which meant to expose the American public and the rising numbers of people who were opposed to the Vietnam War.
But I wonder, given where we are now, how do you think you begin to build a movement that’s truly against the wars that we propagate around the world and the wars that our children are going to face? Where do you think this takes us? And how do you think we address it, oppose it, and stop it?
Norman Solomon: It seems to me that a foundation for any powerful movement is realism, not fatalism. On the contrary, willingness and eagerness to challenge the status quo and make the world a whole lot better, turn around these horrible, terrible trends, but a realism that says we must do all we can to make the world better for the next generations, and in the case of the nuclear age now, make the world possible.
I think of a couple of quotes. One is from Antonio Gramsci, the great anti-fascist imprisoned under Mussolini, who talked about the need for what he called “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.” So on the one hand, the realism, no sugarcoating as we get so often from mass media, unfortunately from the Biden Administration, about the status quo. Sugarcoating is not going to do it. We need a pessimism of the intellect, as Gramsci called it, and optimism of the will, which we could refer to as determination and insistence. This is humanity that has to galvanize our own creative life-affirming power.
Another quote that comes to mind is one that I actually close this book on from James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” That as a foundation and then we have to organize like crazy. And that has many components. I’m sometimes asked, what is the thing that all of us should do? And my answer is there’s nothing that all of us should do. We need to build and create and grow movements the way we’d have a healthy forest. We don’t say well we need a lot of good trees or we need a lot of good ground cover or soil. We need all the above and so much more.
And so in a nutshell, a healthy movement of course has to sustain and support much more effectively independent alternative progressive media, certainly The Real News among the outlets that are vital. We’ve got to support what exists, not take anything for granted, and find ways to greatly expand the power of media and communications, local, regional, and international, and make communication not vertical but horizontal so we can really organize.
And then the last point I would make, which is broad but absolutely crucial. We have to organize. We have to put more resources, time, energy, thought, and cooperation into how we can counter the power of the military-industrial complex bringing us the specter of nuclear annihilation and this climate emergency that is so terrible and ominous for future generations. And we have to run counter to our training because our training through mass media and political culture is to be passive. The corporate media really encourages us to buy things and maybe vote once in a while. We need to turn that around and really make change from the grassroots.
Marc Steiner: I’m going to put this in perspective a bit. You have this great quote in here from the Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Iraq Family Health Survey that I covered and it talks about that the casualties in the war, almost 4,500 Americans killed and 32,000 wounded. It’s the post-war, the cost of almost $1 trillion worth of care for veterans. But then this quote, “The foregoing cost could conceivably be justified if the Iraq intervention had improved the United States’ strategic position in the Middle East but this clearly is not the case. The Iraq war has strengthened anti-US elements and made the position in the United States and its allies more precarious.”
Now, clearly, that’s a pro-American Defense Department statement on one level but on the other hand, it really exposes, in not enough depth, what these wars have done in terms of helping create the terrorism, the dysfunction, the failed states, and the authoritarianism across the planet. And that’s the connection people don’t make.
Norman Solomon: That was a quote yes, from the Center for American Progress aligned by the Clinton clan, 10 years into the Iraq war, and they were simply totting up the balance sheet. They were saying basically, as I write in the book, the war was a flop. They thought it would be great for U.S. power in the Middle East and so forth. It hasn’t panned out that way. So they do the calculus of was the war worth it in strictly monetary terms, in terms of geopolitical power. And even on its own terms, these wars, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the century from the U.S., they haven’t been successful. At the same time, Raytheon, Boeing, and other huge military contractors, never lose a war.
As with the horrible war going on in Ukraine right now with the refusal to engage in genuine diplomacy from Washington or from Moscow, the arms dealers, are doing great. This is a war that is a dream for the military-industrial complex of the U.S. of 2023 and beyond. They see billions of dollars of profits.
And looking at it from a macrocosm, this is a system that is insane. Daniel Ellsberg, in his last and such vital book, The Doomsday Machine, quotes Nietzsche the philosopher, who says that madness in individuals is rare but madness in nations and governments is routine. And we’re coming to the extreme of that where diplomacy has become a dirty word in the U.S. and the double standards, what Orwell would call the double think that we’ve been talking about, is so ingrained that we have an atmosphere now politically and in media in terms of U.S. militarism that I would compare to what happened in the months after 9/11 and happened during the McCarthy era.
Yes, this is a different point in history but the squelching of real challenge and open debate about US militarism is really extreme and it’s part of our challenge, as we were talking about a couple of minutes ago, to build movements just to say, we’re going to create new dialogue, we’re going to ask key questions because we know that the questions being framed right now are suicidal and omnicidal, globally. These are questions that are mainstream, like how do we defeat the Russians? How do we counter the Chinese threat in the South China Sea, for instance, without asking why the South China Sea has its middle name? It’s called the South China Sea because it’s pretty close to China.
And here we have the US that has proclaimed—And we started out, you were talking Marc, quite rightly, about how almost the entire history of the U.S. has engaged, been involved in some warfare. The Monroe Doctrine, from the very beginning, we get to run this hemisphere. Now that’s not enough. We need to also say that in the surrounding area of China, Chinese military vessels are a threat. This is this hubris and arrogance that is normalized coming from the power centers in Washington. Unless we break that mold and shatter that acceptance of such suicidal, global, omnicidal approaches, we will be stuck in what Martin Luther King Jr. called the Madness of Militarism.
Marc Steiner: And that last quote, I’ve been thinking about that a lot given that we are at the 60th anniversary of The March on Washington. I’ve been contemplating his words a lot recently and what those struggles were like then.
But one of the things I really want to raise with you and talk to you about when it comes to this is you really lay out the devastation that these wars have created in the countries where we’ve launched these wars: Afghanistan, Iraq, what’s happening in Yemen and more, the deaths, the complete disruption of society that’s taken place.
And we are also in a time—As I said earlier, and I really want to probe this with you because I know you think about this a great deal and it comes out in the book—Which is, the last war that really affected masses of people in this country that we fought as a nation was Vietnam. And since then, there’s been a great disconnect between the American populace, between our consciousness, and the wars we fight. And it’s an odd twist because it also is entangled in all of our struggles and the draft. What we’ve done in some respects is create a professional army that is disconnected from the rest and one that is deeply connected to war, to remote war, and the devastation it’s causing.
That’s what I kept thinking about as I was reading your book, is that we’ve come into a really much more dangerous place when it comes to global hegemony and war and the disconnect we all feel from it.
Norman Solomon: The disconnect has become much more severe even while the risks have become more extreme. Nuclear superpowers based in Moscow and Washington, are increasingly in conflict. It’s the Doomsday Clock from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the closest it’s ever been, 90 seconds now, to apocalyptic midnight. And yet there’s sleepwalking towards catastrophe that independent progressive media outlets such as this one and social movements have got to directly challenge.
The reality is that as much as we are told the U.S. is an exceptional nation, the indispensable nation, actually indispensable to itself as I say in the book, the reality is we live on a globe that is spherical; What goes around comes around. We’ve learned that with the climate emergency, we’ve learned that with COVID. It’s a derangement, this U.S. bravado, this jingo narcissism that exempts us, we think or we’re told we should think or assume, from the realities that we’re on this one human planet, this one planet together with human beings.
And so what goes around does come around and that underscores that because there are a few boots on the ground now in other countries and missile strikes, drone attacks, and so forth are more and more central to U.S. warfare, doesn’t mean we are at war. And people at the other end of the missiles and bombs, know that we are at war. They are being besieged, they are being sacrificed by people who vote for appropriations on Capitol Hill and will never know their names or see their faces.
And then another part of what goes around comes around is the savage attacks on U.S. budgets, the escalating military spending, while, whether you’re in Baltimore, San Francisco, or anywhere else in this country, you’re not far from places where people are grievously suffering from lack of adequate healthcare, education, housing, infant care, elderly care. That is a reality. That’s part of what the militarized society brings to people and takes away from human lives.
I think about how, as you mentioned, Marc, in the last few days, justifiably, there’s been a lot of media coverage of the 60th Anniversary of The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the beautiful “I Have a Dream” speech. Four years later, Martin Luther King gave his speech at Riverside Church Beyond Vietnam where he called the U.S. the greatest purveyor of violence on the planet. I’m afraid that, overall in this century, has still been true. One of the things that he said which is virtually never mentioned in mass media, is that out-of-control military spending, then as now, in ’67, he said that that spending is, and I’m quoting here, “a destructive demonic suction tube” taking away the vital resources to sustain life in our own country. And so that demonic suction tube is with us right now and it’s part of the invisibility of war and living in a warfare state.
Marc Steiner: As you said, and in all threads that run through your book, is the human cost of war that you have seen in your own travels to different parts of the globe, the cost it is to this country and our own future with dystopian poverty coursing its way through every major urban and rural area of our country. And that’s something that most Americans are not aware of, in terms of what we spend and what we are doing with federal money, and what could be done to keep everyone afloat in America. That’s the imbalance that to me, is part of the subtext of your book.
Norman Solomon: One of the realities is that the proportion of discretionary spending from the federal government on the military keeps going up. It’s now about 55% of discretionary spending that Congress votes and the President signs. That’s going to the military, the Pentagon, nuclear weapons, and so forth.
As you mentioned, Marc, one thing comes to mind that is a tough political nut to crack, so to speak. And yet it’s a challenge but we got to look at it. And that is when you consider U.S. foreign policy, with the exception of climate change and so forth, it’s very difficult to find substantive differences between the so-called leadership of the Democratic and Republican Party, say, on Capitol Hill. They’re both on the war train. They both want to drive the war train. They might disagree on how much military aid should go to Ukraine without diplomacy but very few voices call for diplomacy. They may disagree on exactly how much resources should be diverted from the Ukraine War to confronting China. Republicans tend to want to shift more of the hostility towards China but there is a virtual consensus from both parties on Capitol Hill about U.S. militarism.
And then you get to domestic policy and the Republican Party is neofascist. And it is ridiculous for anyone to claim that there’s not a significant difference between the Republican and Democratic parties on domestic policy. We have a neoliberal Democratic Party in domestic policy and we have a neofascist Republican Party on domestic policy.
And so for progressives, we’re going to be facing, we’re already facing this dilemma; this terrible knot to try to untie or cut through in some way, whether it’s a Gordian Knot or not, I don’t know. But basically, we have these two parties that are so similar in foreign policy and so diametrically, or at least so profoundly, different under the circumstances of domestic policy. It’s not to praise Democrats, of course. Bernie Sanders is right. There’s so much wrong with the Democratic Party. But to inflate the two for domestic policy is ridiculous, and out of touch with reality. And yet, we have to somehow square this circle because we’re coming into an election year.
Marc Steiner: I’m going to close with this; It made me think of this as I finished your book. I actually… I’m going to get some copies, several copies of your book, and send them to my grandsons. And why? All three of them are in the military. And I remember when they were going in, saying to myself, they’re all going into what I called at the moment the intellectual ends of the service. They’re not going to be “in combat.” But then I realized, stepping back in my own analysis, that they’re all going to be in combat because that’s where combat’s going.
Norman Solomon: That’s a great point. I have friends who have been in the military and they were behind computer consoles in the U.S. and the people they were targeting were pixels on the screen.
Marc Steiner: Not human beings on the ground. The way you put it in part of the book, near the end of the book, when you talked about how we know intimately the lives of so many people who were killed in the 9/11 attacks on this country: Who they were, what they did, what their hobbies were, their families, what they left behind. But we don’t know anything about the human beings or the intimacy of the lives of the human beings that we have been part of killing in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, or any other part of the globe.
Norman Solomon: One of the most powerful parts of the book to me, maybe the most powerful, involves the interview I did with Daniel Ellsberg, the great activist, and the Pentagon Papers whistleblower, a couple of years ago. I sat with Dan Ellsberg on the porch next to his house and he talked about exactly that point that you’re making, Marc. He said that he was really struck after 9/11 how The New York Times devoted tremendous journalistic resources to finding pictures and researching the lives of everybody who was killed on 9/11, these little pictures, and would have a few words about, as Dan said, insight into what made them human. They liked to skydive or they were golfers or they were pianists; to convey that they were really human beings whose lives were extinguished by this horrible act of mass murder that we call 9/11.
And then Dan went on to say this could have been done after the Shock and Awe Attack on Baghdad after US troops arrived in the capital of Iraq. He said it would’ve been possible to find the names and pictures of people who had been killed by the US attack on their city. And then he paused and he said, of course, nothing like that ever happened. Nothing like that would happen from The New York Times.
Marc Steiner: And that’s true. That was a great quote. He was a great human being. One of the great pleasures in my life is meeting him numerous times and doing interviews with him. He had so much to teach us about where we’ve come from and where we’re going. And I know you two were very close.
Norman Solomon: Dan used to say, and he would convey this in many ways, he appreciated being told that he inspired people and then he would pause and he would say words to the effect of, most important, what are you inspired to do?
Marc Steiner: Exactly, exactly. I was thinking about what you were saying as well. I knew a number of people who were killed in the 9/11 attacks and I have a number of friends who are Iraqi-Americans and Afghan-Americans now whose families were killed in Shock and Awe and killed in the wars in Afghanistan; two of the most unnecessary wars that ever existed in this country’s history, modern history anyway. The other wars made little sense either but you made me think maybe it’d be interesting to have a conversation between all those people –
Norman Solomon: Absolutely.
Marc Steiner: – About war.
Norman Solomon: Yeah, yeah. The poet William Stafford, who I quote in the book, wrote a poem called Every War Has Two Losers. One side usually, or often, suffers much more than the other, but war is so corrosive. There have been times in my life, and for a whole lot of people, even if we’ve worked on war issues I’ve wanted to think, well, I don’t really want to focus on that anymore. There’s so much else to work on. And of course, there are; There’s so many multidimensional problems and challenges, human realities that we need to encounter and try to improve the world about. Somehow though, war is at such a core of what is ailing our country and the world, what is causing so much suffering, so much social dysfunction, and far worse than dysfunction, so much cruelty that is institutionalized. War is at the core.
Marc Steiner: War is at the core. And Norman, I want to say one thing before we conclude. Is that your books, all of them, this book is exceptionally well-written and in your way of writing you have the heart of a prose poet that makes it very easy to read because it could be a godawful tome and it’s not [laughs].
Norman Solomon: Thanks, Marc.
Marc Steiner: And I do want to encourage everybody to really check this book out. War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine by the wonderful Norman Solomon, who is warning us about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we could be going. It’s a book that needs to be read and I would encourage everybody to take this to their book groups in your neighborhoods and your friends, read it together, wrestle with it, and let us know what you think about what you wrestled with here. You can write to me at email@example.com. I’d love to get back to you on this. It’s really an important book, War Made Invisible by Norman Solomon.
And Norman, it is always a joy to talk to you. A pleasure to talk to you. I appreciate the work you do. You can’t talk about war as a joy but it’s always a treat to talk with you and I appreciate the work you’ve done and taking the time with us here today.
Norman Solomon: Thank you so much, Marc, and thanks for The Marc Steiner Show.
Marc Steiner: I hope you enjoyed our conversation today with Norman Solomon about his book, War Made Possible: How the US Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine. I really encourage everyone out there to read it, share it, and talk about it with your friends. It’s really a very important book. One that’ll make you think and you can really wrestle with the ideas that pop up.
And I want to thank you all for joining us today. And I especially want to thank David Hebden, Kayla Rivara behind the scenes, and everyone here at The Real News for making this show possible. Please let me know what you’ve thought about what you heard today and what you’d like us to cover. Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll write you right back. And while you’re here, please go to www.therealnews.com/support, become a monthly donor, and become part of the future with us.
I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening, and take care